SAN JOSE – Joe Thornton signed a contract extension with the Sharks a little more than two years ago, and what a two years it’s been.
The veteran center was a part of one of the biggest playoff collapses in NHL history, when the Sharks blew a 3-0 first round lead to Los Angeles in 2014. He had the captaincy stripped from his sweater during the subsequent tumultuous offseason. He was publicly criticized by his general manager for lashing out at teammates, and responded by suggesting Doug Wilson “shut his mouth and stop lying.” After the Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time in his tenure in San Jose last April, there were numerous indications that he and former coach Todd McLellan weren’t seeing eye-to-eye anymore, either.
Now, though, he’s seemingly turned the page. And, at 36 years old, has resumed his place as one of the best players in the NHL.
Logan Couture has known Thornton ever since breaking into the league six years ago. He and Thornton share an agent in Thornton’s brother, John.
Does he sense anything different with Big Joe this year?
“I think so, yeah,” Couture said. “He’s enjoying it more. He’s come in with a new coaching staff, and they’ve been awesome from day one with everyone, including Jumbo. He enjoys it. He’s having a blast coming to the rink.
“When we’re playing good hockey obviously everyone is happy, especially him. He wants to win just as much as anyone in this room. When we’re winning and he’s having fun, it’s a fun place to come to the rink.”
* * *
The Sharks have been winning, and it’s no coincidence that Thornton is driving the bus. He’s recorded a point in 23 of the team’s last 25 games, and after an un-Thornton like start to his season when he had just 16 points in 29 games, he’s now tied for 18th in the NHL in scoring with 48 points and is seventh in assists (36).
Since Dec. 15 the Sharks are 15-6-4, and Thornton’s 32 points over that span are tied with Hart Trophy favorite Patrick Kane and trail only Sidney Crosby’s 34. Were he to maintain his output from the last two months throughout a full season, it equates to 104 points in 82 games. Thornton has at least one point in each of the Sharks’ last 16 wins, with nine goals, 25 assists and a plus-30 rating.
As he has a tendency to do, Thornton credited those around him for his offensive production.
“I just think our team in general has been playing really, really well,” he said. “After coach put [Tomas] Hertl on our line [on Jan. 7], I think we just have been playing really well as a line. Our power play has been good. There are a lot of factors that go into one guy getting a streak.”
Thornton also credited coach Pete DeBoer for knowing when to let the players rest and when to work. DeBoer has given the team many more days off than his predecessor, as so many of the Sharks’ key players are over the age of 30.
“I feel really good,” Thornton said. “I think the key this year has been the days off. It really gives us more energy throughout games, and I think you’ve seen it with us in the standings so far.”
Thornton has also done his part to stay in top shape. He spends much of his offseason in Switzerland, but said he’s on the ice and in the gym five days a week from mid-July to mid-August.
“You take a couple weeks off at the end of the year, but you’ve got to hit it. You’ve got to get back in the gym,” he said. “You really can’t take much time off.”
“I think you’ve got to get your sleep during the season. We have a crazy schedule with flying everywhere in different time zones, and I think one thing for me is I’ve got to get enough sleep to perform. I’ve been getting that.”
* * *
This is the first season that the Sharks have had a captain not named Thornton since 2009-10. Joe Pavelski has assumed those duties, part of a larger plan by Wilson to reset the Sharks’ leadership structure after years of playoff failure that culminated in that first round debacle in 2014.
Thornton denies that not having the burden of being the Sharks’ captain has played a role in his resurgence. After all, he didn’t exactly have a terrible season last year, with 65 points in 78 games.
“I never felt it as a burden,” he said. “[Pavelski] has done a great job, and the guys around him have definitely helped him out. As far as being the captain, I felt great being it, and I feel good not being it. It’s not something that I think about.
“I’m definitely proud of the way ‘Pav’ has been doing it, and he’s going to need our support to keep going. It really never changed who I was as a player or as a guy, to be honest with you.”
Couture said: “That was all blown out of proportion. He’s still one of the biggest leaders in this room and he always will be while he’s here. Anywhere he goes he’s vocal, he goes out and he plays a hard game. He leads by example. He’s a leader, and he’s going to be whether there’s a ‘C’ or an ‘A’ or anything on his chest.”
DeBoer wasn’t around the Sharks last season, of course, but he still tabbed Thornton as a full-time alternate for a reason.
“He’s one of the best leaders I’ve been around. He walks the walk, and therefore he can talk the talk,” DeBoer said. “He does hold people accountable around him. There’s a tremendous amount of respect in the room for him because of how he prepares and what he does on a daily basis and how he plays.”
* * *
Thornton, already a likely Hall of Famer, could have plenty of years left. Jaromir Jagr turned 44 on Monday, and it may not be a stretch to suggest that Thornton could keep going just as long.
DeBoer coached Jagr in New Jersey, and sees some similarities.
“When guys have a passion like he has, when they take care of themselves, when they’re in the kind of condition they’re in – and still, most nights he’s the smartest guy on the ice,” DeBoer said. “That goes a long way.”
“I really do feel good,” Thornton said. “As long as I’m having fun and I can contribute, I want to play as long as I can.”
And is he still having fun?
“I love it,” he said. “I love it every day.”